Organizations that Swish October 21, 2011

Girl Powered: The Lesbian Avengers Documentary Project

The Lesbian Avengers-4

The Lesbian Avengers were a grassroots activist group founded in the 1990s and focused on raising lesbian awareness and visibility. At its peak mid-decade, the Avengers had more than fifty chapters and mobilized lesbians worldwide. The Lesbian Avengers Documentary Project is the brainchild of Kelly Cogswell, an original Avenger and independent journalist who writes for Gay City News and the Huffington Post, and is currently in the process of writing a book about the Avengers. The project aims to recover an important piece of LGBT history, share Avengers skills and tactics, and inspire progressive activism. I had the distinct pleasure of learning about these fierce women from Kelly, along with her thoughts on the future of LGBT activism and why lesbians and gay kids still face marginalization.

How were the Lesbian Avengers formed?

The Lesbian Avengers was founded in the spring of 1992 by Ana Simo, Maxine Wolfe, Sarah Schulman, Marie Honan, Anne Maguire, and Anne-christine d’Adesky. These six women were professors, writers, and journalists, and all were committed political activists. New York gay life was really different then. There was still a lot of street activism, and if you wanted to socialize with other LGBT folks, you had to meet in the real world to do it. This meant that there was a big pool of experienced activists, and that many were connected to each other politically and socially.

The initial move to found the Avengers grew out of Ana’s frustrations at lesbian invisibility, and in particular how lesbians were being erased from the Rainbow Curriculum battle. She approached Sarah Schulman about starting a lesbian action group, "totally focused on high-impact street activism, not on talking." Sarah suggested that Ana get in touch with Anne and Marie, both active in the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) - whom Ana didn’t know - and Maxine, who had been tossing around the idea of a hotline that women could call when they had problems so other dykes could do zaps or actions on their behalf. Ana knew Maxine and had already been thinking about calling her.

After an enthusiastic, productive meeting between Maxine and Ana, those six met at Ana’s house for dinner, and came up with the name, the focus, the first action, even a recruiting flyer which they decided to hand out only to dykes on the sidelines of the Gay Pride March in June. Maxine said, "We did not want women who were already committed to nine thousand other groups. We wanted to reach women who were new."

A lot of people responded to those flyers, and a few well-placed articles in dyke rags in the city. I ended up getting involved because I’d met Marie Honan when I was at a temp job, and used to hang out with her and Ann. And it was why I marched with ILGO even though I’m not particularly Irish, despite the name. (Editor’s note: Kelly and Ana Simo are also long-term partners; in her words, “one of the Avenger romances that lasted!”)

This group of largely neophyte Avengers worked because we were led by experienced activists that knew how to do everything from leading civil disobedience workshops to direct media campaigns. We also had a vast talent pool that included artists, filmmakers, writers willing to put their skills to political use, secretaries happy to Xerox fliers, typesetters willing to design propaganda. We even had getaway drivers.

When I get worried about the future of the LGBT movement, or for that matter, the future of the American left, it’s because there’s a missing generation of activists. In the last fifteen years, the only people we’ve seen regularly in the street have been union members, and the skills tend to remain in-house. Part of the mission of the Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project is to get as much information online as possible about Avenger techniques (e.g. how to write press releases, and how to marshal or police your own events so that people at demos don’t get arrested by mistake).

And while social media can get people on the street quickly, spread information, and also document their actions - doing an end run around traditional media - this cultural shift also has its downside. When people make connections online instead of at community centers, bars, or political or arts projects, you may theoretically have access to people with skills, but if you don’t know them in Real Life, how deep is the connection really? Are you going to go out on a limb for them? Bust your ass for months and years? Risk your job? I don’t think we can answer that yet. 

The topics of bullying and subsequent suicides of LGBT teens and same-sex marriage seem to currently receive the most media attention. How do you think the Lesbian Avengers might have applied their activist techniques to raise awareness and force change around these issues?

Every action had the dual purpose of making lesbians visible, and addressing a concrete issue that concerned us.

If there’s one issue that really gets under my skin, it’s LGBT kids. I remember what it’s like to be at the complete and utter mercy of schoolmates, teachers, pastors, preachers, neighbors, siblings, and parents. Most activists never touch that world, working exclusively to change the world of adults. Even the YouTube program “It Gets Better,” only calls attention to bullying.

The Lesbian Avengers created waves by attacking it head on with our very first action. In 1992, the biggest battle in New York City was over the “Children of the Rainbow Curriculum.” It put together lesson plans with games and songs that instructors could use to teach grade school kids that there were lots of different kinds of people in the world, and that they should all be respected. Most of its four hundred and forty-three pages were about race and ethnicity, but six actually mentioned lesbians and gay men, mostly in the additional reading list at the end, which included the totally innocuous book Heather Has Two Mommies. This opened the door to teaching about homophobia.

Enraged local opponents started calling the program the “gay” curriculum and pushed for the whole thing to be dumped. They got national support from the likes of Pat Buchanan and the Christian Right, which was extremely successful in categorizing LGBT folks as “a rich class demanding ‘special rights’ at the expense of true minorities.”  They were so effective that eventually the entirely African-American board of District 29 would vote down the Rainbow Curriculum. And thousands of black and Hispanic parents would march against it, completely convinced that the Hispanic Chancellor of Schools Joseph Fernandez wanted nothing more than to make all their kids sodomites.

Ana Simo, among others, pointed out that it was an important first action, because our opponents were both homophobic, and racist, even if they said it was all about keeping their kids safe from “homosexuals.” When we decided to demonstrate in front of an elementary school, our biggest critics came from the LGBT community. Lesbians would turn up at Avenger meetings and beg us not to go anywhere near children. “My God, they already think we’re pedophiles,” they’d wail. We tried to keep it civil, but their discomfort, and their desire to avoid confronting taboos, seemed to confirm the rightness of what we were doing.

And on the first day of school, we marched to an elementary school in Queens with our own brass band, wearing T-shirts that said, “I was a lesbian child,” and handing out balloons saying “Ask about lesbian lives.” It was a light-hearted action, cheerful even. The power came from breaking all those taboos.

And you know what? The world didn’t end. Some parents ripped up our flyers, but others took them. The lesson was that LGBT activists can go to schools (and churches) and do their work.

We followed up by going to school board meetings, and pressuring the Teacher’s Union to support a curriculum that educators had a big hand in developing. But the Schools’ Chancellor was fired, then the black mayor failed at his re-election bid and the whole issue disappeared, partly because very few activists were willing to fight the battle where it belongs -- in schools.

Homophobia doesn’t end by itself, and if we care about LGBTQ kids like we pretend to, we need to do more of everything, from direct action to supporting Gay-Straight Alliances. And when we’re lucky enough to get bullying laws passed, it’s extremely important that we stick around and make sure they’re enforced, otherwise the schools will use them as toilet paper. Above all, we need to empower LGBTQ kids to act themselves, and not just tell them to stick it out for several thousand more horrible days.

What do you feel are some of the contributing factors to the ongoing problem of lesbian invisibility in media and in issues facing the LGBT community?

While we can now name a handful of lesbians in public life, from Ellen DeGeneres to Rachel Maddow, lesbians are still barely visible.  Why? Good old-fashioned misogyny and gender panic. Our world seems even more aggressively heterosexual than it did a couple of decades ago, with gender even more strictly enforced. Last year, I spent several days surfing network TV and didn’t see one woman under sixty that had short hair except Demi Moore in Ghost.

I live near the restaurant Prune, and just stuck my head outside five minutes ago. Waiting for the Sunday brunch there are about ten women and eight men. Every single one of the women has long hair and makeup. All the guys have short to ultra short hair. We’ve re-entered the fifties.

I know this isn’t particularly scientific, but it stinks of anti-homo panic, which has major consequences for lesbians that may refuse to femme up.  For that matter, it also has major consequences for straight women. When Hillary Clinton was running for President, a lot of the attacks against her were dyke-baiting, pure and simple.

The message we’re getting is, no dykes, no fags, no flamboyant trannies allowed. Anywhere. While we may have made some legal progress, and have a few visible dykes, social openings are pretty much the size of a pea.

How far along is the documentary project, and how can individuals donate money or time?

We have a solid website giving a basic history of the Lesbian Avengers, and we’ve also gotten a version online of the Lesbian Avengers Organizing Handbook, but there’s still a lot more work to do.

I have hours and hours of videotaped interviews with New York Avengers that need to be transcribed and edited into short web videos. I plan to start doing another batch of interviews in January, reaching outside of New York. I would love to have help; donations would help me do that. Or videomakers can donate their time. I also have a lot of fragile documents that need to be scanned.

I’ll frankly admit that the weakest part of the project is fundraising. I’d like to do a KickStarter campaign soon, but I need help with the networking part.

The summer of 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Avengers. If you have the skills and contacts to organize arts events, from photography exhibits to dance or film festivals, let me know. There was a huge amount of work produced by artists that participated in the Lesbian Avengers that was either directly related to the group, or inspired by it, including work by filmmaker Su Friedrich, dances by choreographer Jennifer Monson, plays by Ana Simo, photos from professional photographers Donna Binder and Carolina Kroon, and graphics by noted painter Carrie Moyer. We can’t repeat the past, but a Lesbian Avenger festival could celebrate our history and inspire the future.

If you want to volunteer your time in any of this work, contact Kelly at info@lesbianavengers.com

You can find information about donations at http://www.lesbianavengers.com/support_donate.shtml

You can find more information about the project at http://www.lesbianavengers.com/LA_documentary_project.shtml

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